12 minute read 13 June 2023

Executing on the sustainability agenda

Successful execution of government sustainability plans will depend on actions on three broad fronts: installing effective leadership, creating a climate-ready workforce and adopting data-driven decision-making.

Josh Sawislak

Josh Sawislak

United States

Bruce Chew

Bruce Chew

United States

Tiffany Fishman

Tiffany Fishman

United States

Akash Keyal

Akash Keyal



In November 2021, speaking at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, US President Joe Biden called climate change “the challenge of our collective lifetimes” and vowed transformative action.1 A year and three pieces of legislation later—Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), CHIPS and Science Act, and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—the United States is poised for the largest climate investment in its history.2 Over the next decade, these new laws will collectively direct over US$500 billion toward the transition to a low-carbon future.3 The full scale of the investment is likely to be much higher when factoring in private capital investments, encouraged in many cases by tax incentives or matching federal funds.

Federal agencies have developed climate adaptation and resilience plans4 and created new goals for more sustainable and resilient government infrastructure.5 So, plans are in place, and the funding is lined up. Agencies are now shifting their focus to execution.

While the private sector will play a crucial role—driving technological innovation in clean energy and low-carbon technologies—in the acceleration toward a greener future, the execution of programs undertaken under half a trillion dollar worth of investments will fall on the shoulders of public sector agencies at all levels of government.

Successful execution of climate resilience, adaptation, and sustainability plans will require action along at least three fronts: installing effective leadership responsible for driving execution across the enterprise, creating a climate-ready workforce, and taking action based on data-driven decisions.

Institute effective sustainability leadership

The United States has a federal chief sustainability officer (CSO),6 while federal agencies have appointed their own CSOs. Many state, county, and city governments have created similar roles as officials pursue a more integrated approach to resilience and sustainability. Strategies have been crafted and responsibilities assigned, but that does not ensure there will be effective action. The roles created go by many titles—CSO, chief resilience officer (CRO), chief climate officer (CCO), and more.7 Still, whatever the title or the level of government, they face significant challenges.

Sustainability officers are not just tasked with installing a new modernized system or instituting a policy change within their department. They are being asked to enhance capabilities and performance across the organization in what is, for most, a new dimension of performance. They are called upon not just to facilitate implementation but transformation and change across the organization well beyond their direct control. In some cases, the “chiefs” are also focused on incentivizing and driving change by businesses and residents in their communities. Theirs is a multidimensional problem characterized by technical, organizational, and people challenges. Recognizing this, the Association of Climate Change Officers identifies fifteen core competencies across the categories of foundational knowledge and skills, organizational knowledge and skills, and strategic execution competencies (figure 2).

This is not to say each CSO must master every competency before they can effectively take action. Which skills will be most needed will depend on the organization’s context and challenges. Specific priorities reflect local needs and concerns. For example, New York City appointed a CCO to oversee the citywide effort to address climate change and oversee the Department of Environmental Protection.8 Cities grappling with rising heat—which kills more people than any other weather-related event—are appointing chief heat officers.9 Miami-Dade County, for instance, has recently appointed a chief heat officer to tackle the crisis of rising urban heat.10 The most critical near-term execution skill will also depend on the characteristics of the organization itself. Some agencies, like the US Department of Energy, have long focused on sustainability issues. For others, it is a newer focus, and, in many cases, they may lack broad-based commitment. As a result, while one CSO may be focused on coordinating efforts across the organization and documenting and sharing successes, another may be cajoling and trying to overturn existing orthodoxies that serve as barriers to progress. Or a single CSO may be doing both at different times and with different parts of their organization.

The CSO role has evolved significantly since its inception in both the public and private sectors.11 While both the public and private sectors began with a focus primarily on compliance and tracking, the role currently demands a more transformational approach. A recent survey of commercial sector CSOs identified four roles a CSO is called upon to play: Agitator (Catalyst), Facilitator, Executor, and Steward (figure 3).12 Survey respondents ranked Executor as the top priority, followed closely by Agitator, Facilitator, and Steward. However, the consensus of respondents was that all four faces are critical for today’s CSO. The dominant role depended on the organizational context.

One key to effective leadership, then, is to know which role to play (when and with whom) and master the skills for that role and, more broadly, for the organization’s CSO requirements. But there is also the question of the mandate and mode of execution of the CSO function in relation to the rest of the organization. Research suggests clear and appropriate positioning here is critical to instituting effective leadership.

A recent study identified four modes of execution that characterized the sustainability efforts of the 250+ organizations surveyed. Those modes, and the share of respondents reporting them, are shown in figure 4. The two right-hand modes—“the sustainability heroes” and “all efforts unite!”—were the two deemed more effective. Which of those two modes was most appropriate depended, for lack of a better term, on the “climate maturity” of the organization. To be sure, many government agencies have had sustainability efforts underway for a number of years, with some successes to show for those efforts. But this has often been a decentralized grassroots effort, encouraged and recognized with newsletters and awards, perhaps, but nonetheless, an approach best characterized by the less effective “decentralized energized” mode.

It is important to recognize that the choice between the two most effective modes—the “sustainability heroes” and “all efforts unite!”—is not just an operational choice. Perhaps not surprisingly, given differences in maturity, the research finds that the focus of efforts also varies between the two modes. The “heroes” approach, with responsibility residing in a dedicated team, invests more in performance management and incentives, talent, and the leadership team. The more fully integrated “all efforts” organizations were investing more in culture, new technologies, and an improvement mindset.13

The focus on leadership for “heroes” CSOs comes as no surprise. Support from the top is an additional widely recognized key to instituting effective sustainability leadership. Ultimately, long-term success will depend on adapting behaviors, decision-making, and the systems that drive them. Building resilience and sustainability has been characterized as a system-of-systems problem.14 It requires changes at multiple levels that interact in complex ways inside and outside of the organization. This is why senior leadership support is so critical. Not only is it needed for resourcing and instituting new policies, but it is also needed to foster peer-to-peer cooperation. The CSO’s job is a clear case where responsibilities exceed control. CSOs must accomplish this task without hierarchical authority over most of those whose efforts will be needed to achieve success. This particular challenge was highlighted when “examples of how a CSO may need to communicate” included persuadeinspireconvincetranslatenudgeempathize, and explain.15 To be effective, CSOs will have to act with and through other people.

Create a climate-ready workforce

Sam Ricketts, the cofounder of Evergreen Action, observed, “Every agency is a climate agency now.”16 Climate change is increasingly shaping agency missions at all levels—federal, state, and local. Take, for instance, extreme weather events. Federal agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are dedicating increasing resources to study climate science, continuing their efforts to better predict the occurrence of these events.17 Energy, water, and other regulated utilities are investing in weatherizing their infrastructure,18 and first responders are spending more time and manpower planning for and responding to such events.

As the frequency and severity of extreme weather events are projected to increase in the coming decades,19 climate change may substantially transform the operational landscape, prompting certain agencies to reassess their entire programs and placing even greater importance on resilience. Consequently, agencies are progressively acknowledging the impact of climate change on their missions and are reimagining their way of doing things to embed climate resiliency within their operations. However, this realignment can only work if climate-forward thinking and decision-making can be inculcated within the public sector workforce. Recent events have shown us that large-scale transformation within the government workforce can be achieved quickly and effectively. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of government employees in the United States transitioned to hybrid work or telework in just a few short weeks. While not as dramatic as COVID-19, effective execution of agency action plans will require the government workforce to apply a climate lens to their work. A climate lens can help workers understand how climate considerations may (or may not) affect their role and what they may need to do differently to carry out their particular function within the organization.

At the federal level, Executive Order (EO) 14057, “Catalyzing clean energy industries and jobs through federal sustainability,” and the accompanying Federal Sustainability Plan lay out a path for agencies to incorporate sustainability and climate adaptation into their human resource planning. The plan aims to build internal capacity via education and training on sustainability, climate adaptation, and environmental stewardship.20

Take the US Department of Defense (DoD), for instance. Extreme temperatures, drought, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events inflict costly damage to military installations and can degrade key military capabilities. Climate change can also serve as a threat multiplier that aggravates poverty, political instability, and social tensions around the globe. Global warming is compelling the DoD to rethink its strategy and also consider climate change an inextricable part of its operational environment.21 “We recognize that climate change is a threat to US national security and the well-being of the American people,” said Paul Farnan, acting assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy, and environment. “But beyond that broader threat, it’s also already affecting our soldiers in their everyday lives where we have to operate.”22

For these reasons, DoD is incorporating climate change into its education and training programs across its workforce. The aim is to create a climate-literate workforce that puts the department on a more proactive footing.23 At the state level, Maryland established the nation’s first state-sponsored climate leadership academy to provide training to state and local government officials, aiming to enhance their capacity to develop and deploy climate change initiatives.24

While a level of climate literacy is necessary across the workforce, some specific job functions will need to supplement general education and awareness training with more targeted initiatives. Within an agency, some departments may have their entire operations reshaped by climate change, while for others, the impact may be minimal. The US Army is leading the way in developing purpose-built climate action courses for different factions of its manpower. For example, the US Army has developed a dedicated course for its installation planners and garrison commanders who face an uphill battle against extreme weather events that place military installations increasingly at risk. The Army’s “Climate 101” course allows these professionals to better understand climate science and its implications for land, energy, water, soil, and other issues. The Army’s climate training plans also reflect the need for the entire force to be climate-literate and -aware, with the declared intention to update all of its training modules, exercises, and simulations to consider the impacts of climate change by 2028.25

Another agency that provides role-specific climate change training to its staff is the National Park Service (NPS). In addition to basic climate trainings provided to all its staff members, NPS has curated role-specific climate trainings for its diverse workforce, including park rangers, park managers, communicators, and educators. These role-specific trainings help the workforce across various disciplines recognize how climate change influences their work and become familiar with tools and processes to address climate change. For instance, park managers undergo a training workshop focused on the impacts of climate change on park resources. In contrast, educators take a course on instilling climate-conscious behavior within park visitors.26

Take action based on insights

A classic management mantra goes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Climate-action decisions are complex, costly, and have long-term economic and societal implications; therefore, climate action must be informed by the best available evidence. Recognizing this, public sector agencies are increasing their collection efforts and publishing voluminous amounts of finely grained data about climate aspects, like precipitation, wind, and temperature, and their impact on human society. This rise in climate-data dissemination is a byproduct of the public sector’s ability to deploy tools like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), remote sensing, and the Internet of Things (IoT). For instance, remote sensing and IoT can help collect vast troves of data, which was unimaginable until recently. At the same time, AI and ML quickly parse through huge data swathes to identify patterns that human intelligence alone isn’t capable of. Thanks to richer and more accessible data, policymakers’ view of the climate challenge is clearer than ever before, enabling a better understanding of the problem, deployment of practical solutions, and effective post-deployment analysis to measure successes and failures.

While information is a necessary precursor to execution, it is useless if it's not insightful, no matter how plentiful. The challenge here is assembling data in ways that make it easy to use and derive insights. Data-based insights lead to meaningful action. The federal government has created several mapping tools that layer multiple climate data sets into a single platform to provide insights. These mapping tools enable communities to determine their exposure and vulnerability to climate events and develop interventions. For instance, NOAA has developed an interactive disaster mapping tool that provides county-level information on a location’s susceptibility to catastrophic climate disasters such as wildfires, floods, droughts, and heat waves for every county in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Built with data from NOAA, NASA, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Census Bureau, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and academic institutions, the tool enables users to visualize a location’s physical exposure, socioeconomic vulnerability, and resilience to single or multiple combinations of weather and climate hazards. “The updated tool will provide a better understanding of how weather, ocean, and climate disasters impact many Americans at the community level and help guide targeted preparation and mitigation efforts as we build a Climate-Ready Nation,” said NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad.27 The tool helps public agencies develop action plans tailored to the risks their jurisdictions face.28

It's not just federal agencies; state and local agencies are also enhancing their capacity to collect, analyze, and disseminate information. California, for instance, has deployed a network of infrared cameras to discover and contain wildfires, which are getting bigger, hotter, and more frequent due to climate change.29 The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) partnered with a consortium of universities, including the University of California, the University of Nevada, and the University of Oregon, to launch ALERTWildfire.30 ALERTWildfire is a network of 800+ high-tech infrared cameras placed in and around the fire-prone regions of the state. The cameras, powerful enough to detect a blaze from more than 70 miles away, enable quick discovery, location, and confirmation of a wildfire. The camera network also lets first responders know what’s happening on the ground, even before they reach the spot.31 “They have given us real-time situational awareness and allowed us to make informed decisions much quicker than we used to,” observed CAL FIRE San Diego County Unit chief Tony Mecham. “It used to take 20 to 30 minutes for our fireground commanders to get to fires and make decisions, and now with the cameras, we are reacting within seconds of the first report.”32

Data-modeling tools can also help agencies test interventions in the virtual world before real-world application. For example, agencies can use modeling tools to understand how a program abates carbon and its impact on the community’s economic output. Such feedback tools can help to offset the painful costs of learning what doesn’t work, and decision-makers can explore different approaches and their impacts. Feedback tools have evolved to the degree that it is now possible to build relatively high-fidelity simulations of proposed interventions to measure their potential impacts—both positive and negative—on a particular community or geographical location.

Moving forward

Citizens implicitly look to government to tackle our biggest problems, and climate change, in the words of President Joe Biden, is “the challenge of our time.” Currently, the United States is standing at the threshold of the most substantial climate investment in its history, and it will be up to the public sector workforce to implement it. Therefore, to ensure that the public sector develops and retains its ability to execute these increasingly ambitious climate plans, agencies should take the following measures:

  • Empower CSOs. CSOs have the difficult task of making their agencies climate-ready without hierarchical authority over most of those whose efforts will be needed to succeed. Empowering CSOs by giving them a seat at the table when making strategic and resource-allocation decisions can ensure CSO decisions have leadership support, the requisite funding, and are adequately staffed.
  • Prioritize climate literacy in jobs most affected by climate change. While climate change will affect almost all public sector jobs, some jobs will be more affected than others. Take emergency responders, for instance; extreme weather events have a more drastic and visible effect on their jobs than, say, people working on payroll or human resources. Therefore, it is critical to identify early the jobs on which climate change will have the most profound effect and provide the individuals executing those roles with training and resources to fulfill their missions.
  • Leverage data analysis to adapt and evolve. The growing proliferation of low-cost sensors, satellite data, and the continued evolution of IoT will result in an ever-increasing volume and diversity of data. Public agencies must constantly enhance their ability to analyze extensive and disparate data sets to accurately understand how the environmental landscape is evolving. Proactive partnerships with the commercial sector can help agencies stay abreast of more powerful data-analysis tools and other innovations.

  1. The White House, “Remarks by President Biden at the COP26 Leaders' Statement,” November 1, 2021.

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  2. The White House, “Fact sheet: President Biden’s budget lowers energy costs, combats the climate crisis, and advances environmental justice,” press release, March 9, 2023.

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  3. Victoria Masterson, “Three laws will triple US climate change spending over the next decade,” World Economic Forum, September 14, 2022.View in Article
  4. The White House, “Executive Order on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad,” January 27, 2021.

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  5. The White House, “Executive Order on catalyzing clean energy industries and jobs through federal sustainability,” December 8, 2021.

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  6. The White House, “Executive Order 13693—Planning for federal sustainability in the next decade,” March 19, 2015.View in Article
  7. Brady Dennis and Vanessa Montalbano, “Crushed by heat waves, more cities are hiring ‘chief heat officers’,” Washington Post, July 19, 2022.

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  8. Office of the Mayor City, of New York, “Mayor Adams announces appointments of climate leadership team, streamlines multiple city environmental agencies into one,” January 31, 2022.View in Article
  9. Craig Pittman, “Facing rising temperatures, Miami appoints chief heat officer,” Washington Post, May 12, 2021; Camilla Hodgson, “Cities appoint ‘heat officers’ in response to warming threat,” Financial Times, April 30, 2021.

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  10. Ibid.View in Article
  11. Kathleen Miller and George Serafeim, “Chief sustainability officers: Who are they and what do they do?,” Leading Sustainable Change (Oxford University Press, 2014).

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  12. Deloitte, “The future of the chief sustainability officer,” February 2021.

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  13. Fabian Marckstadt, Marc Dimke, Willem Obermann, and Birte von Zittwitz, Demystifying sustainability transformations: Four keys to mastering the most pressing business transformation of our timer, Deloitte Insights, December 16, 2022.

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  14. Scott L. Corwin, Preeti Pincha, Derek Pankratz, Allison Connell, James Newcomb, Laurens Speelman, and Jun Shepard, “Systems change for a sustainable future,” Deloitte, April 24, 2023.View in Article
  15. Deloitte, “The future of the chief sustainability officer.”View in Article
  16. Valerie Volcovici, “Explainer: How Biden could use his whole government to take on climate change,” Reuters, January 19, 2021.

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  17. Ota Lutz, “NASA's eyes on extreme weather,” NASA, October 18, 2019.

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  18. Mitchell Ferman, “Texas gas companies face fines up to $1 million for failing to prepare for extreme weather,” Texas Tribune, August 30, 2022.

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  19. United Nations, Climate change 2022: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability—Working Group II contribution to the Sixth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, accessed June 2, 2023.View in Article
  20. Office of the Federal Chief Sustainability Officer, Develop a climate- and sustainability-focused workforce, accessed June 2, 2023.View in Article
  21. Josh Sawislak, Ruthie Fetscher, Joe Mariani, Roger Hill, Adam Routh, and Akash Keyal, Climate-forward defense, Deloitte Insights, September 15, 2022.View in Article
  22. Joseph Lacdan, “Army introduces strategy to combat climate change threats,” US Army News Service, February 10, 2022.View in Article
  23. US Department of Defense, “DoD, other agencies release climate adaptation progress reports,” October 6, 2022.

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  24. Amaury Laporte  and Kimberly Skinner, “How the Maryland climate leadership academy creates climate-savvy professionals,” Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), June 28, 2021.

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  25. Tim De Chant, “US Army turns to microgrids, EVs to hit net zero by 2050,” Ars Technica, November 2, 2022.

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  26. National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, Workforce climate change literacy: Needs assessment and strategy, 2016.View in Article
  27. NOAA, U.S. Department of Commerce, “NOAA tool now brings disaster risk, vulnerability down to community level,” July 27, 2022.

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  28. Shourjya Mookerjee, “NOAA mapping tool projects county-level climate risks,” GCN, December 15, 2021.

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  29. US Environmental Protection Agency, “California prepares for increased wildfire risk to air quality from climate change,” accessed June 2, 2023.View in Article
  30. ALERTWildfire, “Home,” accessed June 2, 2023.View in Article
  31. Carolyn McMillan, “How UC research is helping California meet the challenges of the climate crisis,” University of California, April 6, 2022.

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  32. Lauren Fimbres Wood, “Heat of the moment,” Triton Magazine, September 7, 2021.

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The authors would like to thank Apurba Ghosal from the Deloitte Center for Government Insights for her research and operational support.

Cover art by: Eglė Plytnikaitė

Sustainability, climate, and equity

Deloitte helps public sector clients address pressing and complex sustainability, climate, and equity challenges. We leverage data analytics, proprietary assets, and innovative technology to improve government organizations’ resilience, enhance their readiness, and drive inclusive growth.

Josh Sawislak

Josh Sawislak

Managing Director | Sustainability and Climate Solutions Leader


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